Threat to withhold loan guarantees leads to less aggressive plan
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Monday, September 22, 2003
Page A - 1
Abu Dis, West Bank -- Two of Israel's most senior civil servants will try to persuade the Bush administration today to drop its objections to the 225-mile, $1 billion security fence Israel is building to stop suicide bombers entering from the West Bank.
The White House has threatened to withhold part of the $9 billion in loan guarantees to Israel to protest the route of the fence, which is planned to cut deep into Palestinian territory in the West Bank in order to protect Israeli settlements.
In Washington today, Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet secretary, and Defense Minister Amos Yaron will present National security adviser Condoleezza Rice with a new plan for the barrier in an effort to deflect U.S. criticism. They will propose that instead of including the large settlements of Ariel near Nablus and Ma'aleh Adumim east of Jerusalem, the barrier will be left unbuilt in those areas.
The compromise has enraged supporters of the fence in Israel, but Sharon hopes it will avoid a head-on collision with the Bush administration.
The spat with Washington is the latest chapter in the tortured history of the project, which was first proposed by dovish Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the 2001 election campaign.
Leftist Israelis support the fence -- but only if it follows the invisible "Green Line" marking Israel's 1967 border with the West Bank, thus removing it as an obstacle to an eventual peace with the Palestinians.
RIGHTISTS FEAR DE FACTO BORDER
Rightists -- who might be expected to be in favor of the project, since it would create further "facts on the ground" -- instead fear that the fence will become a de facto final border, hastening the creation of a Palestinian state and causing the evacuation of Jewish settlements beyond the barrier's reach.
Police and security officials strongly support the project. Their arguments,
underscored by terror attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis, persuaded Sharon and his center-right allies to begin construction.
Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, says the experience of nearby Cyprus, divided after a bitter war between Turkey and Greece, bolsters the theory behind the security fence.
"The violence subsided significantly after the Turkish authorities turned the Green Line there into a dividing wall, passing along the entire length of Cyprus," he said. "The evidence clearly demonstrates that almost 30 years of physical separation allowed tempers to cool, as the emotional amplifiers of the conflict subsided."
Critics, however, say that Sharon is moving too slowly, allowing foreign opposition to crystallize, and that the proposed course of the fence has strayed too far from the Green Line into Palestinian territory.
"They should have built the fence long ago, but it was held up because the settlers were opposed," said Haim Ramon, a prominent Labor Party politician. "The fence has been delayed for more than a year because the government is trying to route it not according to security needs but the needs of the settlers."
Palestinians vehemently oppose construction of what they dub the "Apartheid Wall," accusing Israel of grabbing large swathes of Palestinian land. They argue the barrier cuts them off from their own fields and orchards and denies them freedom of movement inside the West Bank and the chance to find work inside Israel.
"We are being put into a series of cages," said Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, as he surveyed the bulldozers looming over a hill near his office last week.
The proposed route of the fence runs through the village of Abu Dis east of Jerusalem, cutting straight through the university and slicing off a playing field from the administration buildings.
Amnesty International has condemned the barrier as a form of "collective punishment" that "permanently restricts the free movement of Palestinians."
The clamor for erection of a continuous border fence grew as terrorist attacks reached a bloody peak in spring 2002.
"There is a security fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel, and though many have tried, not a single terrorist has been successful in entering Israel from Gaza," argues Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser to Sharon who now heads a public committee lobbying for the fence. "All of the terrorists . . . come from areas within the West Bank, as there is no fence or barrier between the West Bank and the major population centers in Israel."
Economists say the fence will pay off in ways other than basic safety.
TERROR ATTACKS HURT ECONOMY
Avi Ben-Bassat, an economics professor at the Hebrew University who is a former director-general of the Finance Ministry, said the economy had been seriously hurt by the terror attacks.
Israel's gross domestic product grew by more than 4 percent annually from 1997 to 2000 but has been falling ever since the intifada began in September 2000. The worldwide recession is largely to blame, but Ben-Bassat attributes one quarter of the decline to terrorism and its associated costs.
Ben-Bassat said the fence would enable Israel to cut military expenditures, which now account for a huge 9.5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
"The benefits are enormous," he said. "It will cost about $1 billion, or 1 percent of GDP, but it will add $6 billion to GDP over the next two years. It's very expensive to protect the border now, and they can't do it anyway."
In August 2002, bulldozers broke ground on the first section of the fence outside the northern West Bank city of Jenin, aiming to cut off a favored cross-country route used by suicide bombers into nearby Israeli cities.
The project is modeled on the international border fence with Jordan, which runs largely along the Jordan River. It comprises a barbed wire and concrete barrier delineating an exclusion zone about 10 meters wide, a ditch to stop vehicles, an electrified, 3-meter-high fence fitted with sensors, a dirt road examined daily for footprints, a patrol road fitted with further sensors and a final barbed-wire fence on the other side.
It is planned to run about 200 miles around the West Bank, encircling some Israeli settlements but excluding others. But the final route of the fence, including sensitive areas around Jerusalem, has not been decided.
Israel Harel, a leading ideologue of the settler movement, said the "panic for a fence" had changed the face of Israeli politics.
"More than presenting an insurmountable obstacle that will prevent the infiltration of terrorists, the separation fence will constitute the border," he said. "The main political powers in Israel have adopted a consensus: Since there is no possibility of reaching an agreement (with the Palestinians) in the foreseeable future, there must be a unilateral separation."
Pragmatic rightists close to Sharon also worry about drawing a line that leaves some settlements unprotected. Likud party chief whip Gideon Sa'ar said that routing of the fence along the Green Line, as proposed by Washington, would be "the biggest prize of all for Yasser Arafat."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle